A Rare Genius

COMPOSERS: Vilayat Khan
LABELS: Navras
WORKS: A Rare Genius
PERFORMER: Vilayat Khan (surbahar, sitar)Vijay Ghate (tabla)
CATALOGUE NO: NRCD 0157

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For many followers of North Indian music, the greatest of living sitar players is VILAYAT KHAN. His unequalled mix of flamboyant brilliance and expressive range enthralled listeners for much of the 20th century, and an exclusive deal with Navras means that releases continue to appear even as he approaches 80.

Most exciting so far is the Rare Genius album, partly because he plays the surbahar for half of it – he has taught this baritone version of the sitar but rarely performed on it in public – and even more because most of it is slow, unaccompanied alap.

It’s often noted that younger musicians struggle to sustain this opening section of a raga elaboration at any length (see this month’s World Music for more explanation of alap, raga and North Indian music in performance). Vilayat Khan’s opening half-hour is a superb, intense showing of what can be done, essentially a single arch of dark-hued melody that descends into the surbahar’s resonant tonal depths before gradually ascending to a series of ringing peaks.

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The second raga, which he plays on sitar, is calmer and more upbeat, in mood and to some extent in pace when the tabla finally begins to play, though only the closing two minutes go fast.